It is the last day of the 2015 Interior Design Show West and we are packed into the Keynote Speakers’ zone. “I’ve got to get a picture of him,” the gentleman behind me tells his wife. “Tommy is my favourite television personality.”
The gentleman is not alone. Designer Tommy Smythe is on many a favourites list. He and his ‘TV wife’ Sarah Richardson bring great style and wit to shows like Sarah’s House, Sarah’s Cottage, Sarah 101 and the more recent Sarah’s Rental Cottage. The oft bow-tied Smythe can be seen on the Marilyn Denis show and in all manner of design magazines.
When Tommy emerges, the lady on my right is alarmed. “He’s not wearing a bowtie!” she stage whispers.
“I’m wearing more long ties these days,” Smythe explains when she later asks him about the omission. “But, I will wear a bowtie at home when I’m cooking ziti.”
The tie may be different, but Smythe is as witty, gracious and articulate as expected. He is a little hoarse, he explains, after Lainey Lui’s birthday party, but that doesn’t stop him from lauding Vancouver’s design community, sharing his well-honed design insights and fielding questions from the audience.
What should a designer do if clients are picking apart the first bill?
Fire them, says Smythe. If you have been clear about what you will charge and clients are challenging the bill, then it is best to cut them loose. Stick with them and you’re in for trouble.
“A personal question, Tommy.”
“ A personal question?” he breaks out the wry grin. “Boxer briefs.”
“When did you decide that you were going to be a designer?”
“Some people are born to do certain things,” says Smythe. He has had a paper and pencil in his hand since he was a kid. Smythe knew that he was going to grow up to do something creative, but it wasn’t easy.
For a “tiny, gay kid” who grew up in a hockey dynasty family – witness the Conn Smythe trophy awarded to the MVP during the Stanley Cup playoffs – artist was not a failsafe route. Smythe always felt different. He didn’t have a lot of teachers who were encouraging about a design career. ‘Well, you’re argumentative,’ they would say. ‘Maybe a lawyer?’
Smythe was lucky to have the tremendous support of his parents and extended family. They bolstered his courage to seek a creative life. In his twenties, he thought he might become a fashion designer. He was lured over to interior design, but can live vicariously through his successful fashion designer sister, Christie and the Smythe label she runs with Andrea Lenczner.
Here at the IDS show, Tommy has come with some eye-candy shots from his popular Instagram account and tips for those seeking more beauty in their lives and homes. His advice falls under three main headings: Experience it, Work it and Own it.
1. Experience It
It’s important, Smythe says, to get out into the world and explore new things. Once there, stop for moment and take it all in. For Tommy, travel is “vitally important for my creative spirit.”
Don’t just take the obvious view. “Look up,” he says. In following his own advice, Smythe looked up on Burrard Street, only to spot Vancouver’s Art Deco Building set beautifully against all of our modern high-rise glass.
“Look down. I’m a very short person, so I’m always looking down.” This week, Smythe went to the Vancouver Art Gallery, looked down and was struck by its intricate floors.
And “look around,” as Smythe tries to do in even the most mundane of environments. Scanning left to right has allowed him to see the beauty in subways, a beauty he has captured in a popular photo series.
2. Work it
This is about scholarship, says Smythe, and not just through books. Get out and talk to artists, art dealers and designers. Learn about local art. Stop to read the plaque by a sculpture you admire and find out who created it.
3. Own it
This is about courage, says Smythe. It is being patient in developing your vision, then staying true to your eye, even if others doubt you.
Smythe shows us pictures of a kitchen he designed for his own home. At every turn, people told him that he was doing things wrong. The light fixture was too big. The table was ridiculous; why not have an island? The countertops were a hodge-podge. And who has black cabinets on the bottom and white cabinets on top?
Smythe stuck to his vision and that kitchen was featured all over the place. TV shows, magazines, Pinterest boards. “Do the project that you want,” says Smythe. “Do what’s right for you.”
Smythe is in no hurry to rush off the IDS stage and happily fields more questions from the audience. He is generous in singing the praises of other designers within the IDS show and more broadly across Vancouver.
Sadly, there are planes to catch back to Toronto, so Smythe must eventually leave. We can look forward to more of his musings in a Simon and Schuster book due out next year. Word has it that he and Sarah are also filming a super-secret project right now.
Tommy’s Vancouver Shout-Outs
Some of the people and places around Vancouver that Tommy mentioned as favourites…
1. Heather Ross
Smythe has high praise for Ross’ Natural Eclectic boutique and her work as a photographer, stylist, artist and author.
2. F As In Frank Vintage
This Main street store is on Smythe’s Vancouver must-visit list. He appreciates their re-working of clothes and design approach.
3. Jamie Pryde
Tommy was delighted to see someone from a younger generation with a great eye and an interest in antiques. Pryde’s The Edit has been online and is now setting up offline digs on Howe Street.
“Did you hear that Tommy gave you a shout-out in his talk?”
“That’s what people are saying! I wish I could tell him thanks!”
4. Robert Bailey Designs
“Robert Bailey is one of the best designers in our country,” says Smythe.
Written by Elizabeth Newton